Last week there was a social media furore over the Forest Management And Conservation Bill 2021. The Bill seeks to amend the law by curtailing the involvement of the regulator, Kenya Forest Service, when varying forest boundaries.
Kenya has about 7.4 per cent forest cover and there is an ambitious plan to increase this cover to 10 per cent. The importance of forests are diverse including serving as water catchment and mitigating adverse climatic changes.
The Aberdares forest range for example, is the source of several rivers including River Tana and River Athi that flow into the Indian Ocean.
Kenya’s forests also provide some revenue from tourist activities. Some forests like Karura forest, Kereita forest and Arabuko Sokoke provide visitors with diverse activities from nature trails, picnics and other licensed activities.
Any threats to forests would have a damaging effect on the environment. This is probably the reason why there was a lot of furore on the proposed changes.
The Bill seeks to amend the existing law by deleting Section 34 on the procedural aspects of applying for a variation of forest boundaries and replacing it with a new one.
Previously before a petition to vary the boundary of a forest could be introduced into parliament, it had to be recommended by the Kenya Forest Service.
This means petitions which were not supported by the Forest Service did not even make it to Parliament. The new proposal seeks to eliminate the involvement of the Forest Service and instead have petitions directly brought to Parliament.
A petitioner had to establish that the proposed variation did not endanger any species nor the forest’s value as a water catchment area.
The bill does not serve additional purpose for Parliament will still be involved in determining the variations. It is important to involve KFS in the initial stages of a petition as the agency has experts to assess the impact of a variation.
Furthermore, the Forest Service has adequate research to make an objective finding. Parliament may not have this sort of expertise. Involving the Forest Service will also minimise politicising forest allocations.
Nevertheless, here are some tips as to how the public and other stakeholders can lend their voice to the cause. One way is by submitting written memoranda and attending public hearings.
The Constitution requires stakeholder involvement before any Bill can become a law. The public can through written memoranda express their views at this stage.
The second way the public can participate is by petitioning Parliament. A petition to Parliament is allowed under the Constitution. One can petition parliament to either repeal a bad law or enact a new law.
A last option is through the courts. Courts have power to repeal laws that are against the Constitution. The public is skeptical that if the bill passes, then their right to environment might be endangered. This is especially so where illegal forest allocations to developers and other interests have been the case.
There is fear that the process of allocations may be politicised if left to Parliament alone. Kenya has had history of such illegal forest allocations. About 17,000 acres of forest land were illegally allocated in parts of the Mau Settlement Scheme.
This illegal allocation has had an adverse effect, according to an environmentalist. For example the water quality has gone down.
The Forest Service ought to be involved in the process as it has the expertise to advice on such. Furthermore, involving it will eliminate frivolous petitions by persons with vested interests.